We arrived – Sara, Malcolm and I – almost a week ago. We are living and sweating in Jacmel, the southern part of the country. June is hot. We are not too far from the equator. I wipe my face and the back of my neck while sleeping. Sara tells me it takes about a week to adjust to the heat. I’m waiting.
Now, it’s a Sunday morning and I sit at the dining room table writing this. Samson, the owner of this property and our friend, is broadcasting a church service from his radio. I hear the choir singing. I hear a preacher speaking with power. I see Junior and Sebastian playing with a balloon.
We have not had electricity in four days, so I have to be prudent with my use of electronics like this computer. I’m told that the power company has no gas with which to feed electricity to the residences. People come to visit us almost every day. We sit down in wooden and plastic chairs. I feebly attempt to speak Haitian Creole, and depend greatly on Sara translating for me. Folks laugh but appreciate my attempts to speak. I try telling jokes.
Every day we go to the ocean – la mer. The rocks, stones, pebbles and boulders found in the water are colorful and of all shapes and sizes. It’s like artwork made from the Universe. When the waves (“vag” in Creole) recede, the rocks click against each other making their many small voices heard. The waves are rough here, and there is a strong undertow. These small rocks have been thrown about by the waves, crashed into other rocks, and have become smooth over the centuries of this constant friction.
Over the years we hired Madamn Anis to cook, clean, and do our laundry for us. There is an art to Haitian cooking that we have yet to master. Bos Anis, Madamn Anis’ husband, is a tailor. They have two children, Sebastian and Ricardo. Ricardo has the dream of being a doctor, perhaps.
Today is Wednesday. These names for the days really don’t mean much to me right now. Junior (9 years old) and Sebastian (11 years old) have joined us with David (pronounced Da-veed) and Lelynn from Port au Prince. We’ve been going to the beach almost daily, and playing in the water. Malcolm loves to throw the rocks and hear them go “plop”.
Today, I convinced Malcolm to come in to the ocean with me. At first, he resisted. He was grabbing on my neck making me very unstable as I attempted to walk on the rocky bottom, well aware that I could lose my bearing at any moment. As I settled down, so did he. When I got comfortable sitting on the rocks (the water was not more than two feet deep), he was able to relax and enjoy the waves come through – feeling the up/down motion and smiling (sometimes giggling) in the process. Sebastian, Junior, and Sadrak (Samson’s 10-year old son) joined us for the long walk to the ocean. They have been eager all morning to “ale nan mer ak banyen” (“Go to the ocean and bathe.”) Now we were bathing together. It was quite a pleasant relief from the heat of the sun.
This experience has been a striking contrast to the perceptions that most of my friends, family and sangha members have of the country of Haiti. I’m told variations of, “don’t go because it’s too dangerous.” Haitians are well aware of the American perception of their country and people as violent. It’s not that there is no violence and danger here, but I feel safer here than I would in New York City on any given day. At present, much of the country is in the midst of protesting for the removal of their president because of proof of embezzlement. While I have not witnessed any protests yet, it made travel here extra challenging. We avoided staying in Port au Prince because of the violence that sometimes accompanies these protests.
What I admire about these protests is that the people rise up together and are able to speak with a more-or-less united voice. They are clear that their president needs to go.
I am always made aware of my own prejudices while I’m here. If I’m totally honest, I fear Black people. When I see a Black man with dreadlocks, I experience fear in my body. My chest constricts and I pull in my stomach. This reaction is unconscious. It happens before I can think about it. I can’t prevent it from surfacing. But because I’m aware of it I’m in a position to be critical of my own perceptions. Is this person really dangerous?
What is at the root of my perception of Haiti being a dangerous place? In studying, “White Fragility” by Robin Diangelo, great pains are made to spell out our implicit bias as a nation towards Black people in particular. The unresolved legacy of slavery is burned into our conscience and to the way our institutions and economy operate. Because it remains unacknowledged by society at large, we are constantly dealing with it at an unconscious level. One manifestation of this is an irrational fear of Black people.
The people of Haiti are like those smooth rocks that click together as the ocean water recedes. They have been battered around and yet they make a harmonious sound. My unconscious mind is like the waves that come and go. As my ignorance recedes I can hear the songs of generations of Haitians who have survived their oppressors, revealing their beauty and resilience.